Fresh off the heels of the righteous Pillars of Eternity, RPG-favorite developer Obsidian returns with TYRANNY, a unique entry into the overhead party-based genre of fantasy games. Rather than playing the "chosen one" tasked with saving the land from a great evil, you play a powerful tool of the vile overlord who's already won. Sorry, Gandalf.
With real-time battle that allows you to freeze the action, a nifty spell-system, colorful and unnerving characters, and a plethora of world-building lore, Tyranny allows you to engage in the land of Terratus to a level I haven't seen in its ilk. While Baldur's Gate and it's followers (with the exception of Planescape: Torment) are most comfortable in a standard high-fantasy setting based on elves versus orcs, Tyranny mixes its magic and complex social politics into a satisfying blend of danger and uncertainty. As a tool of a tyrant, you're free to be as nasty as you want to get what you need and do whatever it takes to keep the realm under your boss's thumb.
That doesn't mean you have to be as cruel as possible–just that you can. The world or Tyranny is a harsh realm where honesty doesn't always pay, and purity of heart will leave you gutted on a spit. If Baldur's Gate is Lord of the Rings, then Tyranny is Game of Thrones.
And most importantly? It's really, really good. It's available through Steam and GOG, and comes in three forms: Commander (standard) edition, Archon edition (base game with digital bonuses like avatars and soundtrack), and the Overlord edition (all digital bonuses from the Archon edition, plus a digital guide and art book).
The mysterious overlord Kyros has pretty much conquered the world, or at least the world you know. While you're able to choose several pre-set backgrounds (maybe you were a pit-fighter who won your freedom, or a noble kept from execution by your wit, etc,) you also can choose your past actions during critical battles in Kyros' conquering of the Tiers, the main area of Tyranny's tale. This really wedges you into the game world and makes the reactions of the characters you come across both believable and understandable.
It all comes down to the fact that the story isn't just a set-piece in Tyranny, it's the meat and potatoes. You may battle your way through the game, or spend the vast majority of your time talking past obstacles and outwitting your opposition with deft wit and diplomacy. Don't let the idea of reading a lot scare you, though–there's a good game the story is built on top of, and it all comes together into the same beast.
If you've played any isometric RPG's since Baldur's Gate, such as Icewind Dale, Pillars of Eternity, or even Dragon Age: Origins, the base elements of Tyranny will be immediately familiar to you. You begin with one character and click to move. You'll eventually be able to recruit party members, and can use traditional weapons, special skills, and spells to battle your foes in real-time, while being free to pause the action at in order to give orders and plan strategic attacks.
There are a lot of layers on top of that classic formula, though, and it pays to look deep into them right at the start.
Like most Western RPG's these days, you can choose your character's gender, background, and physical features (facial style, skin color, hair, etc.) It pleased me a great deal to see at least one realistic body type for both the male and female character models, and the unique, almost tribal shading and art style were a welcome change from Torchlight-style cell-shading or World of Warcraft-ian cartoonish-ness. There's also less sexualized clothing for the female characters in Tyranny, and it's nice to see the story really take center stage over sex for once (and don't think I'm above that sort of thing–I did give Criminal Girls 2 a 9/10.)
There is a good selection of backgrounds stories to choose from, such as Knight, Pit-Fighter, War Mage, etc. They're varied, and they actually alter the game a fair bit. More interesting is the mini-game that Tyranny begins with, where you choose your aforementioned actions prior to Kyro's conquering of the Tiers. This is shown on a digital war-map, where play pieces are moved into view, representing your options. You can choose which battles or events to participate in, and what actions you take at each. These are actually referenced by the multitudinous NPC's and recruitable party members throughout Terratus, so it's worth choosing carefully.
Once you've got your character and backstory all set, you find yourself tossed into a situation where you must suppress an insurrection in the Tiers, or face mass annihilation of the entire area (yourself, included) by means of your magically-superior overlord. You've got an 8-day in-game cycle to accomplish this, and there's a lot of places the game can go from there.
Normally, I dislike games that place time-crunches on me, but Tyranny works more like the first Fallout game than one of the Atelier games; rather than serve as an arbitrary limit implemented in a misguided effort to encourage replays, the time limit at the start of Tyranny serves part of the story, and–like most things here–your actions during that time affect later events.
Combat is Real-Time with Pause (RTwP), meaning you can dive into a melee, and pause the action anytime to assign directives to your party. RTwP has come a long way since Baldur's Gate; in Tyranny, you can not only pause and direct a companion to cast a spell or drink a potion, but you can hold the shift key, and direct them to do a whole series of actions. Arcing lines run from characters who are "engaged" in battle with one another, which offers boosts to various skills, and disengaging from battle gives opponents extra attacks.
There are normal attacks, and a range of melee weapons such as bows, single-handed weapons, dual-handed weapons, and daggers to strike with. There are also skills, which you can receive and upgrade via points attained by leveling up. There are also collaborative skills that are unique for each companion in your crew. These are joint moves that include your character and a party member, and are exceptionally powerful.
Each character you can recruit also has two reputation stats, Loyalty and Fear, and each is affected by conversations you have and decisions you make. Reaching certain levels in each unlocks new skills, though they may also have unforeseen effects on your party, as well.
The spell system is a unique one and is based on sigils (symbols). There are core sigils, Expression sigils, and Accents. The core determines the type of spell (such as atrophy spells that decrease opponents stats or illusion spells that create optical illusions); the expressions dictate the range of a spell, such as an offensive cone area of effect, or a single nearby target; and the accents are optional enhancements, such as added range or power. Each sigil added to a spell adds lore, and a character must have an equal or higher lore stat in order to equip the spell. Different modifications of spells can be saved and renamed and can be equipped to different characters.
graphics and sound
The art design is unique, sort of like if Bruce Timm of Batman: The Animated Series fame developed a gritty medieval fantasy with tinges of African-mask imagery. Bold strokes make striking shadows in both the background and characters and look less pre-rendered than painted. It's a nice change of pace from the digital faux-renaissance paintings usually used in fantasy RPG's.
The music is nice, too; a touch more ominous than the strings and orchestral arrangements in any number of D&D games, but very reminiscent of the first Baldur's Gate.
Tyranny has flown a bit under the radar since it's release, and that's as criminal as any of the monstrous characters you'll come across on your play-throughs. It has so much to love–a great story, excellent writing, unique characters, engaging choices that matter, and great combat–that it belongs in every classic RPG'ers digital collection.
The one hazard I'll offer is that it ends without giving you quite as much as you want; that's not to say it's unfulfilling, just that you want even more (let's pray to Lord Kyros for some DLC, ASAP!)
Some may also be turned off by the idea that you have to play a villain, but there're enough tense situations and moral quandaries that allow you to make your character more of a reluctant savior than a thrilled psychopath (though you can indeed be that if it floats your boat.) So if you're on the fence, I say take the plunge and give it a try–just don't be surprised if the world of Terratus eats you alive.
|+ Awesome story||– We want more! DLC, please|
|+ Deep combat and spell system|
|+ Choice-based gameplay that matters|
|+ Great art design and realistic character bodies|